After two inspired performances against the then European Champions, Gareth Bale’s praise soared through the roof. Two top quality performances against Inter Milan in the group stage of the Champions League threw him into a shower of admiration from the country’s press and pundits alike. The first game, Inter had completely dominated Tottenham and were 4-0 up at half time. It could be said that they too their foot off the gas in the second half but Bale’s hat trick with the help of only 9 team mates brought a bit of light for Spurs on an otherwise horrid evening. Then just a fortnight later, he helped them comfortably beat Inter at White Hart Lane and despite the fact that Inter were still getting used to Benitez’s high defensive line, something they never really got used to, it was still a memorable performance. Two assists and a massive headache all night for the renowned Brazilian right back, Maicon.
Bale had shown in these two matches that he was perfectly capable of destroying any right back in the world. His change of pace was outstanding, his dribbling brilliant and the way he kept turning Maicon was frightening.
Comparisons between him and even Lionel Messi came and some were saying that he had the ability to be the best in the world. The pressure on him to perform was now immense.
Yet his European games ended up clouding the judgement on his performances as a whole. In the league he was far less impressive. In 30 appearances, 29 of them starts, he got just one assist. His goal tally at 7 was much better but even that was at a worse percentage than his European rate.
So why all this hype? Well it could partly be down to his style of play. It’s not slow and technical, it’s not tactically efficient, it’s fast and direct. It goes with the style of play that is nationally accepted in England more easily than it is abroad. Pace and running at players is a bigger factor in the English League’s than it is in Spain where technical expertise is the key or Italy, where tactical efficiency is the biggest thing.
Bale is a key part of Tottenham’s play going forward. This is a lot to do with their particular tactical patterns in attack; they generally attack the flanks. Look at this chalkboard from the second leg against Real Madrid.
As you can see their chances in the main came from balls into the box from wide players.
However despite this, Gareth Bale’s crossing from deep is a fairly big weakness. Marc Tarsky, one of the Tottenham writers on this site said “his crossing is inconsistent to be nice“. Of a total of 250 crosses, including corners, 182 alone have been caught by the goalkeeper – a total of 72.8%. Compare that with Nani, the top assister in the league last season who out of his total 294 crosses had 190 caught by the keeper, a total of 64.6%. New Liverpool signing, Stewart Downing’s percentage of crosses that were caught was still 7.7% less than Bale.
That’s not the only problems he’s had. In the League, teams have tended to sit deeper and block the space for him to run into. As the other Tottenham writer, Sam Rourke, points out “ In League games where he has struggled to impose himself, opposition sides have generally held their right midfielder back, in order to occupy the space he needs to accelerate…It is often against the better sides that Bale shines“. Look at the evidence and this is certainly true. Look at this game against Inter at White Hart Lane:
Bale is in a 1v1 with Maicon. The right winger (blue) hasn’t offered much cover and there is plenty of space in behind Maicon for Bale to take advantage of. Lucio is unable to be the spare man because of Van Der Vaart’s position high up the pitch.
Inter were concentrating far more on attack and pressing the Spurs back four than Blackburn and West Brom were. Hence they left space for Gareth Bale to take advantage of. Maicon is generally considered to be a fairly fast player yet Bale left him for dead all night at White Hart Lane. In the league though, the lower teams have tended to bring the right midfielder back and sit fairly deep when Bale has got the ball on the left. Hence he hasn’t had as much space with which to work with or run into so his performances haven’t been as good.
His mentality has also been an issue. Sam Rourke goes one to say “if his confidence is down, his play goes with it. Other issues include his toughness, small knocks seem to really hurt him and he does break easily.” With one of his main patterns on the ball, running at full backs, generally needing a great deal of confidence, it is easy to see why it affects his game so badly. Marc Tarsky agrees saying that his performances are very on and off.
However he has a lot of plus points. 7 goals is a decent tally for a player whose tactical play doesn’t consist of much cutting inside nor playing as an inverted winger. 63% of his passes went forward last season. He’s a good tackler of the ball with a percentage of 77% success rate for tackles.
His main strengths though can’t really be analysed statistically. His speed is obvious as mentioned but his ability to dribble past players is also very good. His ability to get a dangerous cross in after he has beaten a full back is actually very good regardless of his crossing completion rate. It’s when he is unable to beat the full back that his crossing ability lets him down; he has to cross from a still position and often get good curl on the ball whereas if he gets behind the full back he generally only has to hit it square across goal, a much easier skill.
This brings us to another of his strengths. He is constantly wanting to run at the full back. With the use of inverted wingers nowadays or even defensive strikers for wingers, a lot of them don’t want to run at the full back or take them on. Many get balls into the box from deep, or pass to an overlapping full back or even just move inside. Bale loves taking on full backs, running at them, changing direction and unleashing his biggest strength, not his pace but his acceleration. Bale has a terrific turn of pace. If he has space to run into, it’s extremely difficult to stop him especially from a standing start. It’s what caused Inter so many problems. He’d pick the ball up from fairly deep often from a standing start, take on Maicon and then unleash his acceleration to get past him. His ability to get up to full speed fairly quickly destroyed Inter’s right hand side and is why he got 2 assists in that game – he managed to get behind Maicon to get balls across the six yard box.
His positioning and control is also very good, in particular his positioning where he is able to stretch play out wide and cause space in the middle for players like Van Der Vaart who took advantage of this earlier in the season. Tactically he brings a lot more space to the rest of the team. With a lot of teams doubling up on him, it leaves space for the full back, generally Asou-Ekotto to have time and space on the ball. With his preference for staying outside it also opens up the space inside. Tactically it’s probably something Tottenham don’t take advantage of enough and you do feel that if they got some extra firepower up front, forwards who would drop deeper or provide more of a threat, it might mean opposing sides positioning themselves more compactly in the middle, in turn making more space for Bale out wide.
Gareth Bale has been over-hyped a lot by the English press in the last season. He’s not the best player in the world but he still has the ability to be a top class player as we have seen with some of his performances last season. Indeed with his obvious abilities as well as his young age he still has the potential to become one of the Premiership’s leading players and indeed one of Europe’s. If Tottenham can bring in an extra cutting edge up front as well as a bit more variety in their attacking play Bae could find circumstances lead to him performing well on a more consistent basis and that could be the key to allowing him to make the next step up.